Research led by the Australian Institute of Sport has found that as many as one in three elite athletes reported significant symptoms of anxiety or depression.
When compared that it affects around one in five of the wider population it is a stark reminder that the current approach to mental health needs to evolve.
Knowing there needs to be a shift in this conversation, Melbourne-based startup Fitmind is building a suite of accessible resources around mental health that aims to shift wellbeing attitudes in youngsters and young athletes through a community of people who support one another.
Founded by mother and son team of Kas and Ahmad Taleb, and backed by a team that includes coaches, psychologists, athletes and parents, Fitmind is an app that targets youths aged between 12 and 25, empowering them to build, strengthen and maintain a fit and healthy mind, whilst teaching them about resilience and wellbeing through the lens of sport, games and social connectivity.
Fitmind’s app comprises three components with all of the content developed in association with psychologists: an artificial intelligence program based on an emotionally intelligent mental health coach using a text-based conversational interface, essentially a chatbot. The second part a ‘Training Hub’ which has bite sized training sessions and gamified challenges. Users are guided through expert wellbeing training to help them reach their full potential in a fun, gamified way. The final component is a mentoring program which gives access to selected mentors who can give one-on-one and group mentoring.
“Too often conversations are driven by alleviating mental illness rather than building mental fitness,” Kas Taleb told Bullpen.
Taleb is a previous startup founder and a Masters of Entrepreneurship graduate from the Wade Institute at the University of Melbourne and is undertaking a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology at the same institution. She founded Fitmind as a way of helping Ahmad cope with the pressures of being an athlete.
Ahmad is 17 years old, is contracted to A-League club Melbourne City and is part of the Australian national team setup. His rise from community club level up to the national level has taken just seven years.
As Taleb tells the story of Ahmad’s progression as an athlete. “With Ahmad’s position from a young age in a football team and as part of sporting culture, nurturing his mental health and wellbeing has been pushed to the forefront of my mind.
“As someone who is passionate about mental health and wellbeing, I was always introducing ways of dealing with challenges he faced throughout his journey but felt as though it wasn’t enough especially as he started playing at a higher level.
“Whilst we were going through this, we realised we were not the only ones struggling to grasp the mental side of being an athlete. Within our community, we heard of two athletes, one where his mother found a suicide note in his bedroom and another where he tried to commit suicide because his parents didn’t realise his love for sport was greater than academics and though that was his only way out.”
“We started with an Instagram page then what we realised was a lot of athletes were messaging us and looking to talk. It’s not about making a diagnosis or dealing with depression or anxiety but it’s a preventative or early intervention tool. We maximise their wellbeing and try to empower them to reach their full potential in everyday life and sport. It’s not just about being an athlete but about being a good person as well.”
The platform is anonymous for youths to access and ask questions without judgment. Mindful that it can be costly for some to seek personal advice or visit a psychologist, it’s hoped that an accessible app helps to bridge the gap.
“Young people already spend much of their time online, it can make them feel more comfortable with communicating through online services and the anonymity that comes with it, instead of face-to-face. It’s not intended to replace therapists or psychologists but it’s content that is readily available to read, learn from and apply to everyday life,” Taleb said.
“The problem is that there is still a mental health stigma with athletes and I think the stigma is stronger than the general population because it’s perceived that physical prowess equally translates to mental health. An athlete will rarely tell a coach that they’re not feeling well that’s why texting can be a good outlet for youngsters, a chatbot can be something that they can talk to at all hours of the day and be provided with links and information.
“It needs to start at the grassroots. We want to tackle not just the way it’s approached, but also when it’s approached. We want young athletes to grow and be empowered with the idea that mental health and wellbeing is just as important as physical health.
“Fifty per cent of mental health conditions start before the age of 14. We want to target people as early as possible with positive psychology and feed them information and open their eyes at a young age.”